By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; D07
With everything that went awry for the Washington Nationals on Saturday, it would have been testament enough had they simply kept the game competitive.
That they rallied twice and overcame an embarrassing fielding gaffe -- as well as an injury to their starting catcher and the ejection of a coach -- to outlast the Baltimore Orioles explains why Adam Dunn called the 7-6 triumph perhaps the most significant this season.
The slugging first baseman had a lot to do with the Nationals winning for just the second time in nine games and getting back to .500. His two-run single in a four-run sixth was the difference, putting Washington ahead to stay and completing a comeback from a 6-3 deficit. The Nationals (22-22) also had trailed after the first inning, 2-0.
"This is really a big win. We've been playing terrible," said Dunn, alluding to Washington's five straight losses to conclude their most recent road trip, followed by a win and two more losses at home entering Saturday. "Today was probably the biggest win of the season so far as far as kind of a little morale boost."
The Nationals were forced to recover for a second time because of a puzzling defensive sequence from center fielder Nyjer Morgan, who also has been lacking at the plate. Morgan is batting .240 (6 for 25) over his last eight games, and he had been held out of the starting lineup twice in the past week. His miscue in the second game of this three-game interleague series simply amplified those recent struggles.
With the score tied at 2 after left fielder Josh Willingham's two-run blast in the third inning for the Nationals, Adam Jones walked to the plate for Baltimore in the fourth. On third base stood Luke Scott, who had reached on an error and advanced two bases on consecutive sacrifices. Jones promptly launched a drive to deep center.
Morgan leaped near the wall but could not make the catch, the ball bouncing off his glove. Thinking the ball had gone out of the park for a home run, Morgan slammed his glove to the ground in disgust, not realizing the play was still live. That's when Willingham, who had been yelling to Morgan that the ball was on the ground, came to his aid and threw to the infield.
But by then it was too late. Scott already had scored, and Jones was in full sprint, crossing the plate without a play for an inside-the-park homer, the second allowed by the Nationals in four days. When Baltimore ended its half of the inning with a 4-2 advantage, Nationals fans booed loudly as Morgan ran off the field and into the dugout.
"My emotions got to me there because I knew I should have had the ball," Morgan said. "It's just one of those things where I let my emotions get to me out there, which I normally never do. It's just one of those plays where I thought the ball went over the fence."
That lapse in concentration by Morgan served as the second dose of bad news for the Nationals in less than an inning, as starting catcher Iván Rodríguez had to leave the game with a lower back strain after his at-bat in the third. The Nationals said Rodríguez, 38, who was replaced by Wil Nieves, would be day-to-day.
Then at the end of the fourth inning, the Nationals lost first base coach Dan Radison, who was tossed from the game for arguing with first base umpire Mike Winters regarding what he thought was a balk by Orioles starter Brad Bergesen (five innings, 11 hits, six runs). Quality control coach Tim Foli took Radison's place.
For a second straight game, Washington fell behind in the early going. The culprit in this instance was Nationals starter Craig Stammen, whose struggles at the start of games continued. The trouble began when Orioles No. 2 hitter Nick Markakis sent Stammen's full-count offering to left-center field for a single. Miguel Tejada followed with a single to right-center that Morgan misplayed, allowing Markakis to advance to third. After Tejada moved to second on a wild pitch, Ty Wigginton delivered a two-run single.
Stammen has pitched scoreless through the first two innings of his nine starts just twice, and 19 of his 36 runs allowed have come over the first two innings.
"Pitching, it's not like if you don't feel good in the first inning you just give up, pack it in," Stammen said. "Pitching is all about not feeling your best and still keeping your team in the game. I did for a while."
In the end, the offense and outstanding work from the bullpen bailed out Stammen, who lasted 5 1/3 innings, giving up nine hits and six runs, four of them earned. Tyler Walker got the final two outs of the sixth for his first victory and decision of the season, and Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps, who got his league-leading 16th save in as many chances, followed consecutively with one perfect inning each.
"We made a lot of mistakes, but we played hard," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. "If the team plays hard, I can't complain too much. . . . It was tremendous energy in the dugout. It was great attitude in the dugout. It was a will to win the ballgame, and the guys kept getting after it."